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Ballmer regrets not aping Apple sooner

'We didn't put the hardware and software together soon enough,' says former CEO in his first public appearance since retiring last month

March 5, 2014 06:49 AM ET

Computerworld - In his first public appearance since he stepped down as Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer again acknowledged that the company missed the boat on mobile.

But this time he put a different spin on his answer, evoking the business model of Microsoft's arch rival, Apple.

"The thing I regret is that we didn't put the hardware and the software together soon enough," Ballmer said, referring to smartphones specifically, but mobile in general.

Putting hardware and software together is Apple's business model, begun decades ago with the Mac then continued with the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010, that relies on the company creating both, controlling both from first to last.

Microsoft only picked up the hardware-software bug, at least in a major way, with its Xbox line. In general computing, however, it didn't make a move until mid-2012, when it unexpectedly announced the Surface line of tablets, which it said it had designed, had manufactured and would start selling later that year, when Windows 8 debuted.

Since then, the company has put down $7.4 billion for Nokia's handset business and to license a large patent portfolio. When that deal closes, probably within weeks, Microsoft will have added smartphones to its hardware-software strategy.

That means Microsoft is seven years behind Apple, and four years behind Samsung, the South Korean behemoth that has raked in billions in revenue from its Android-powered phones and tablets.

In more general terms Tuesday, Ballmer also copped to a lost decade.

"If you look at things in the last 10 years, I think it's probably fair to say that there are things that did not go as well as we intended them to," said Ballmer to a packed crowd of students at the Said Business School, University of Oxford. His hour-long Q&A was later posted on YouTube.

"We would have a stronger position in the phone market today if I could redo, for example, the last ten years," Ballmer added.

Yesterday's no-details mulligan on mobile was not Ballmer's first. In August, he implied that it was Windows Vista -- the operating system that was three years late to market -- that led to a failure to capitalize on the shift to mobile.

"I would say probably the thing I regret most is the, what shall I call it, the loopedy-loo that we did that was sort of Longhorn to Vista," Ballmer told long-time Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet. "I would say that's probably the thing I regret most. And, you know, there are side effects of that when you tie up a big team to do something that doesn't prove out to be as valuable."

Vista, which was released to retail in early 2007, has been judged a failure, one of Microsoft's few in the operating system market, and to its detriment, Windows 8 has increasingly been compared to Vista.

A month later Ballmer was more specific at his final meeting with Wall Street analysts on Microsoft's campus.

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